Most American households have pets, and nearly 90 million of those pets are dogs. Very few of them will ever bite or injure anyone, but any type of dog — regardless of breed or type — can bite or otherwise cause an injury. Mikkel Becker recently spoke with Heather Paul, a public affairs specialist from State Farm Insurance, about why they don’t discriminate on the basis of breed when offering homeowners’ insurance, and the company’s participation in the Kindness is Powerful program, which promotes healthy, safe, loving relationships between people and dogs.
“Dogs are our companions, protectors, and family members. The best way to show our pets the love and respect they deserve is to be responsible.”
Those might not be words you’re used to hearing from a homeowners’ insurance company, but they’re the words Heather Paul of State Farm Insurance used when we discussed dog bite prevention, the relationship of breed to dog safety, and their non-breed discriminatory policy. “State Farm does not refuse insurance based on the breed of dog someone owns,” she went on to say. “When writing policies, we do not ask the breed of dog owned, and we do not track the breed of dog involved in dog bite incidents. We also believe that educating dog owners about being responsible will reduce dog-related injuries because under the right circumstances, any dog might bite.”
She also stressed the importance of owner’s taking responsibility for their dog’s training, and also being aware of and helping them with their emotional state. “Any dog, regardless of breed, will react when scared, stressed, or protecting their space,” she said. “State Farm does not ask what breed of dog owned when providing homeowner or renters insurance because breed is not an adequate factor when determining risk. What can be controlled is how pet owners manage their dog, and avoid putting their dog in a position where he feels threatened or fearful.”
Mikkel: Have dog insurance claims gone up steadily in the recent years? If so, is the increase a recent trend?
Heather Paul: For State Farm, the number of dog-related injury claims has remained steady over the past decade. The same cannot be said for the amount paid for those claims. In fact, the amount paid has continued to increase over the past decade.
Over the past decade (2008-2017), State Farm has paid over $1 billion for dog-related injury claims. We have experienced a 57 percent increase in amount paid for dog-related injury claims over the past decade (2008 compared to 2017). Just in the past year, the number of dog bite liability claims for State Farm has decreased slightly – 42 claims – while the amount paid for those claims increased by over $10 million.
There are a number of factors contributing to this increase, including large legal settlements and an increase in the cost of medical expenses. Severity of injury is another factor that will increase the cost of a dog bite claim. An injury doesn’t need to be teeth to flesh for a liability claim to be filed. An excited dog may jump up onto a person, knocking them down the stairs and causing an arm or leg to be broken. This is paid as a liability claim. There will be much more cost associated with this than a simple bite, because there may be surgery or physical therapy involved in the recovery. Severity of injury doesn’t just equate to mauling or a dog attack.
Mikkel: What do you think are the main factors behind dog bites?
Heather: Dog-related injuries are one of the most preventable accidents in our country. Like most accidents, dog bites tend to happen in the home or neighborhood. One common mistake people make is they believe that dogs they’ve seen or interacted with before will always interact with them in the same way. Any number of things could cause the dog to act out, even if there haven’t been any prior problems with that dog. People assume all dogs are nice, or assume because a dog is friendly with someone else, it is safe for them to approach and touch. Also, just because you’ve had a positive interaction with a dog before doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen that way again. Remain alert to risks in dogs, even those you think you know.
Mikkel: Have you seen negative trends associated with the occurrence of dog bites, such as a link between aversive methods and aggression?
Heather: Aversive training methods that use fear or physical punishment do more harm than good. Dogs who are raised and trained humanely are more confident and less likely to bite than dogs who are trained using punitive methods or equipment designed to intimidate and cause pain. Positive and Fear Free dog training results in a more confident dog who trusts their owner and is less likely to bite.
Mikkel: Can you tell us about the Kindness is Powerful program?
Heather: Kindness is Powerful is a program created by dog trainer Victoria Stilwell that teaches children about the value of kindness and respect for animals and people. State Farm is a sponsor of Kindness is Powerful because an important step to reducing dog bite incidents is understanding the importance of respecting dogs. The program also teaches children how to understand dog body language, how to properly approach dogs, and how dogs have many different jobs. Finally, children are encouraged to be ambassadors of kindness and to share the message with their peers and parents.
Mikkel: Are children the most at risk for dog bites and are children most often the ones bitten in the claims? Is there a difference that you see in the types of situations or bites that children get? Are there certain ages of children more at risk?
Heather: Educating children about safely and positively interacting with dogs is critical to reducing dog bite injuries. Children make up more than more than 50 percent of all dog bite victims. In fact, half of all children age 12 and younger have been bitten by a dog. Dog bite-related injuries is highest for children ages 5 to 9 years, with almost two thirds of injuries among children ages four years and younger are to the head or neck region. The elderly and home service people like letter carriers and package deliverers, meter readers, and food delivery services also are high on the list of frequent dog bite victims. The United States Postal Service (USPS) reports that 6,244 employees were bitten by dogs in 2017. This is a decrease of 511 dog attacks compared to 2016 (6,755 U.S. postal carrier dog bite incidents reported).
Mikkel: What are the main ways that State Farm advocates protecting children from bites?
Heather: The important thing to remember is that any dog can bite. Use proper judgment, ask permission before touching or playing with a dog, and make confident, slow movements. Being smart about your interactions with dogs can help prevent bites and can make a positive experience for both you and the dog. To protect children from the trauma that comes from a dog bite or injury, State Farm encourages teachers and parents to teach children how to properly interact with dogs. An important step is reminding children to ask their parent or responsible adult if they can interact with a dog before moving into the dogs’ space. Understanding dog body language is also important to know when a dog is stressed, scared, or happy. Finally, it is incredible important that parents never leave a child alone with a dog, including the family dog.